Friday, April 30, 2010


I got nothing against the general idea of the empirical study of happiness.  It's fine with me if you want to ask people questions, hook them up to electrodes ... the whole nine yards.  Knock yourselves out.  But then I get to some of the actual studies, and the interpretation of the results, and the recommendations, and I get a little antsy.

Like, one of the big findings of happiness research is that people are pretty bad at predicting what will make them happy or unhappy and how happy or unhappy things will make them.  So, for instance, you might think that if you lose your leg, or someone in your family dies, you'll be really unhappy and that if you get a great new job or find the perfect mate you'll be really happy.  But the research suggests that if you wait a little while, your happiness after these events will be roughly close to what it was before (see e.g. Dan Gilbert's excellent book, Stumbling On Happiness).

OK, fine, and I believe it, but really, what am I supposed to do with this?  I guess it's standard to think that to want something is to think that thing will bring you happiness, and if that's right, then you know what to do with this research:  adjust your desires accordingly.  If the psychologists tell you that tomorrow you won't really care who won the superbowl, maybe you should stop caring so much now about who wins the superbowl, since it won't really matter to you anyway. 

But I think this can't be right.  Because isn't it obvious that these empirical conclusions don't in any way mean that now, knowing what we know, people should stop trying to avoid physical impairment and the death of loved-ones or that they should stop trying to get better jobs or find the perfect mate.  Right?  The evidence is that having children makes people, overall, less happy, for pretty much all the years that the kids are growing up.  Isn't it obvious that this is not, in itself, a reason to avoid having children?

I think the standard thought must just a mistake:  to want something just isn't necessarily to expect it will make you happy.  You want things because you want them, sometimes because you think they'll make you happy, sometimes in spite of the fact you know they won't.  Happiness just one of the things floating around.   Which leaves us where, exactly?  Almost no where, as far as I can tell.

In her recent discussion of these issues in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert describes policy makers who want to adjust policy toward the goal of better ensuring people's happiness.  Noting that we've all known forever that happiness isn't everything, she points out that all this research doesn't tell us much about what to do:  even if we could find ways to really enjoy all this hedonism we got around us, she says,
"Surely, trashing the planet is just as wrong if people take pleasure in the process as it is if they don't.  The same holds true for leaving future generations in hock and for exploiting the poor and for shrugging off inequality.  Happiness is a good thing; it's just not the only thing."
Makes sense to me, but why restrict the outliers to just moral values?  The implication of this passage is that sure, for ourselves, happiness might be what we want, but that it's important to care about other people.  Fine, but really, I would say, happiness isn't even the only thing we want for ourselves.  We want all kinds of stuff. 

So when she cites Derek Bok as writing "Most voters would probably prefer to be happy rather than have their representative mechanically accept their mistaken impressions of how to reach this goal," I see what he's getting at, but unless we are talking about a restricted realm of consideration, I gotta say sorry, but no, maybe not.